The flummoxerization of the average native speaker of English who has unexpectedly wandered into grammar’s slough of despond is never greater than when he/she/they (you choose) have/has to deal with lie, lay, and lie. The three words sound deceivingly like musical non-lexical vocables, sounds singers make up when they can’t think of any more words.
The first lie in this triad is an intransitive verb, which means the action of the verb doesn’t go anywhere because the subject is resting, so please keep your voice down. The prefix “in” in intransitive means “not.” We can think of the subject as no longer in transit, unless they fly first-class and have grown indifferent to the plaintive cries of those in the second-class section, whose seats are marked with a button called “Recline,” which, if you look carefully you will see contains the wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap word of our trilogy. But more of that later, and hopefully less of these long, complicated sentences that are really just rants decked out in commas.
At this point, the reader may be thinking, “This is easy.” Think again. You’ve stepped into one of the muddiest parts of the slough.
Did you lie down in bed last night? Tell me about it. I lied in bed. Well, that may be true, but it’s not the past tense of the “lie” known as rest. Okay, I laid in bed. Laid what, my friend? You see how easy it is to get stuck in the mud. The correct answer is “I lay in bed last night.” Many people are disturbed to wake up and discover they slept all night with what can also be a transitive verb.
To avoid disturbation, use a synonym like “recumb.”
Harold: (at the dinner table) Excuse me, Lydia. I’m not feeling well. I think I need to recumb.
Lydia: (running for the bucket) Here, use this.
Harold: No, dear, I need to find a place to support most of my body in a somewhat horizontal position.
Lydia: That sounds supine.
Lay, the second leaf on our word shamrock lie-lay-lie, means to place or put something somewhere, often in a place you have completely forgotten about. Since it’s perfectly acceptable to lay your head on your pillow, people often say, “I’m going to lay down.” Unless they are planning to lay down their burdens, this is incorrect. If they are planning to lay down their burdens, perhaps you could show a little sympathy and not try to correct their grammar.
The ubiquitous “people” that we have all heard so much about often point to Bob Dylan’s song “Lay, Lady, Lay” as the first of many songs leading to decline of the English language. What these “people” don’t know, and I didn’t know myself until a few minutes ago, was that Dylan’s favorite hen, Lady, was one of the most productive hens ever not recorded. When she hit a rough spot in her career, Dylan wrote this song to encourage her. He thought a change of venue, his big brass bed, would do the trick. Apparently, many chicks were laid there.
That little known “fact” brings us to our third word “lie.” As far as information goes, this is dis- or mis-. A lie is to the truth as a politician is to his or her campaign promises: there is no connection. Many people lie; I lied once myself, but I didn’t inhale.
Quibblers may squabble or prattle or babble over exceptions, other meanings, and other uses of lie-lay-lie. Brabble on. The English language is full of exceptions, ergo ipso facto hokey pokey, it is an exceptional language.
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